If you’re headed to Iceland, chances are you’ll be spending a day exploring ‘The Golden Circle,’ a 190-mile loop through the country circling from Reykjavík and back.
After some major Pinterest research, I found these to be the most popular stops:
- Thingvellir National Park (Þingvellir National Park)
- Laugarvatn Fontana
- Geysir – Strokkur
- The Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laugin)
- Kerid Crater (Kerið)
- Hveragerdi (Hveragerði)
We opted to not visit two of the geothermal pools since we had already been to The Blue Lagoon earlier in the trip, and I have far too much energy to spend time just sitting in a body of water. I’ve provided links above for the attractions we skipped over, but keep reading to find out about the places we did stop.
Don’t worry about mapping out each location because the road, basically, only goes one way, and each tourist attraction is well marked with a red sign pointing you in the right direction. So once you’ve decided on your stops, fill up that gas tank, get a super early start (aka 9ish), and on your way out of the city, make sure you stop and get yourself a cinnamon roll because those things are seriously amazing in Iceland.
Thingvellir National Park (Þingvellir National Park)
This was our first stop along The Golden Circle, and it will probably be yours too since it is one of the most popular tourist attractions. Although entrance into the park is free, this is one of the only spots we had to pay for parking – 500 ISK. We spent about an hour walking around and exploring all the park has to offer. If you’re feeling crazy and want to swim in 39° F water, here you can choose to snorkel in the Silfra Fissure, a divide between two continental plates. This California girl was not down for that, and after seeing the divers getting out of the water, was happy about her decision. Major props to my cousin who had done it the previous spring because I was barely able to hang in the 18 layers of clothes I had on.
Fun fact: I’m pretty sure I’ve been to more National Parks out of the country than I have within the US.
This stop is the one exception to the rule of being easy to find with a red sign. It’s a more unknown waterfall, and GPS isn’t going to get you to where you need to be. The GPS directions we had told us what turn to take off the main road, but that’s about it. (Note: If you use Apple’s map, it brings up a different location, so Google “Bruarfoss” and use the directions from there). Luckily, the extensive Pinterest research I had done beforehand got us the rest of the way. Once turning left off the main road, the best advice I have is to just follow the path and keep left. It’s a dirt road, and your tiny rental car is going to feel like it’s about to break down, but just keep going anyway. Eventually, you’ll start seeing some cottage-type buildings with areas marked by numbers, followed by a handmade PVC pipe sign labeled “Bruarfoss.” If you drive past this, you’ll reach #14 which will open up to larger area where you’ll be able to park your car. Head back and follow the marked foot path down over the small bridge. Once you cross the bridge and see the giant puddle of mud, be smarter than we were, and use the plank to the left to get past this. Trust me, no matter how fast you try to walk through it, you’re going to sink knee-deep in mud. Still blaming that one on karma from the toast we stole for breakfast. Continue on the path to the left for 5-10 minutes until you reach the falls. I will point out that this isn’t a waterfall you can walk up to, which is something no one else had mentioned when I read about it. I’m sure there’s a way to climb down to the water, but we clearly weren’t having the best of luck at this point and just stayed on the bridge to view this beauty.
Geysir – Strokkur
Our next stop through The Golden Circle was Geysir. You’ll know you’re getting close because that super wonderful rotten egg smell due to all that sulphur. I recommend parking in the parking lot on your right. It’s much bigger and more organized compared to the madness happening in the lot to your left. Once parked, you’ll need to walk farther up past the building and cross the street to reach Strokkur, the active geyser of the two. It erupts every 6-10 minutes, so wait a little before you freeze your hand off recording nothing while waiting for it to erupt. Hey, anyone want to watch the 8 minutes of blank footage I have, though? Before you head to the next stop, I highly suggest grabbing some lunch here. There are tons of options inside, and I don’t remember passing much else as we continued on our route.
I only have one word for this stop: freezing. We spent more time looking for parking than we did looking at the actual waterfall. It’s big, beautiful, has a rainbow, and did I mention it’s cold? At least I got a work out in with how fast I ran up those stairs back to the car.
Kerid Crater (Kerið)
This is the only stop we visited that we had to pay an entry fee – 400 ISK. We didn’t walk around the top of the impressive crater, but did walk down to the bottom to admire all the beautiful colors. I really suggest not missing this stop. I could have stared at it for hours.
We had trouble finding the trailhead for this hike. The full trail is 11 miles out and back starting near the entrance to the city and, let’s be real, nobody got time for that. Instead, to start your 4-mile hike, take the first right at the roundabout into the city (assuming you’re on your way from Kerid). Continue on this road until it dead ends at the main trailhead where you will see a dirt lot to park and a coffee shop. Hopefully, you’ve already changed into your swimsuit because your only option at this point is a porta potty or the car. This hike is fairly easy if you don’t get caught in a snow storm with terrible winds like we did. It’s steep in the beginning, but levels out as you enter more into the hills. We definitely considered turning around a few times because of how bad the winds were, but the end was extremely worth it, and we reached the hot springs as the storm settled. The area we chose to hang out in wasn’t very deep, maybe a few inches, but that seemed to be the standard for other areas along the river as well. After hiking what felt like the equivalent of Mt. Everest, give or take some drama there, it was nice to relax in the hot springs before jumping back into 25º F weather and heading back to the car with frozen icicle hair. No drama there. My hair literally froze into icicles.
PS: If anyone knows how to pronounce this city’s name, you give me a call.
We were lucky to be visiting at a time of year when Iceland has long hours of daylight, so we never felt rushed if we wanted to stop randomly along the way to check anything out or pet the horses. The route we traveled took about 12 hours total round-trip, so we arrived back in Reykjavík as the sun was setting, just in time to enjoy some whale for dinner – but if that isn’t your protein of choice, you can decide on a more familiar option.